Changing the Way We Read: A Review of Hsia Yu's "Salsa," translated by Steven Bradbury

By Canaan Morse, published


Salsa, by Hsia Yu, translated by Steven Bradbury (Zephyr Press, 2014)

The poet and the translator of this collection have successfully created and re-created poetry across a linguistic boundary. This may sound unremarkable, but consider: not all translation, but only good translation can achieve this. These poems, especially the translations, exist both within and outside of their originators’ control, and now that each of the many essential parts has coalesced, it is also necessary to name those parts: a name on the book cover that belongs to one of the most important poets in Taiwan’s literary history; a collection of forty-six poems that has been through ten printings in the Chinese; forty-six English poems that are translations of the forty-six Chinese poems, and are also poems in themselves; the visible hand of the translator, Steven Bradbury, a professor of English literature in Taiwan whose scope as a translator encompasses classical, modern, and contemporary poetry in Chinese; and a vast, burgeoning interpretive space, not a gulf between the two versions but an aura around each that opens up as the reader vivifies the writing.

The poems here display a notable diversity of purpose, form, and voice. They include character studies, tours through labyrinths, stories, discussions, dreams, and collages. They explore metaphysics, myth, sex, writing, purpose, and much more. When Eileen Tabios affirmed in her review in GALATEA RESURRECTS that “there is an is-ness to these poems,” I interpret that as a sense of the poems’ feeling of self-propulsion – either their language creates subjects, then drives feeling through those subjects and into the field of new language, or they guide the reader through a complex and unceasing process of internal change. (That’s a tangential reading of Tabios, and I’ll discuss her comment in more depth below.) The poems grow, and their messages evolve. A few selections for evidence:


We had a visitation from a woman dead for many years
We felt her presence but could not see her
Heard her voice instructing us to turn
The hand-crank of the projector in the room (when has it
Not been there?) and as the cogs clicked and turned
A cone of light (it’s always a cone of light) illumed
A corner of the room and in that cone of light
She appeared

Like every spirit ought to
We were bewitched and completely forgot to ask about the afterlife
All the color had been drained from her
Like a still in a black and white film

Which made us
Who were in the dark
Begin to fidget and fret and mumble to ourselves
Because we were aware we are in color

And then abruptly became oblivious
As for the awakening of this moment
Were a rain falling
We would become afraid our parting
Would stop the rain from
Falling there in the warm room
In the warmth of the warmth
Of the warmth of the room in the rain we are
Rarely unaware of how we waver

The poem graduates from a fairly concrete, though fantastical, story into a postulate that is also a charged metaphor. The two are connected intuitively, not logically, and the reader rides that intuitive connection into a new, self-doubting, highly volatile emotional state. The sound patterns in the later lines draw us into this state even as they break down grammatically and their message becomes ambiguous and multidirectional. That transforming language is as much the product of the poem’s first stanzas as it is a guide for our own emotional response.

From “Playerless Piano”:

Gone already
Hands linger on the body
A player piano
No one is playing

On a heavenly shore surging with stars
An interminable gaze set in motion

How were those embraces
Those smooth glossy bodies like
Two dolphins embracing like two glaciers
Sliding into a sea of fire

Those conversations, how did they begin
To stand out this way those completely
Clueless cities to be so precisely
Perfectly poles
Apart from those passing-throughs

See the fall from the initial metaphor (hands on the body/body as a player piano) into highly active images that are, again, intuitively connected, and then into an interplay of sound, confusing and dazzling the reader’s attention as the words come together. Notice the translator’s strong poetics: how rhythmic the alliteration and consonance, how measured the syllabic cadences. This is good poetry in English, but it also an excellent translation of the Chinese. The fourth stanza:


Now what we call a trot – a word-for-word translation intended to deliver as much information as possible:

How were those conversations begun
that they might make those utterly uncomprehending cities
seem to be so accurately, perfectly polarizing
those passings-by

This is a negative example. Intended to serve as a gloss for the denotative meaning of the source characters, it abandons contextual reading and is without nuance. It’s English, but it isn’t Hsia Yü. Readers of Chinese will apprehend immediately the gentle, measured cadences of the Chinese lines, see the enjambment, hear the rhyme created by the repetition of . English readers of Bradbury’s translations hear “p” plosives and susurrations, arranged in equally careful rhythms. One more example, from the poem “Dictation”:


I’m of a mind to sit up straight
And dutifully take dictation

Extending my hand
I say I’m up for it

Today being Wednesday
I really feel I’m up for it

And so I go to India
In India the music has no beginning
It has no end in India
You cannot ask
A person’s whereabouts


In India those who can sit
Ought not to stand those who can lie
Out not to sit or else
The whole lot can squat back on their heels in any case
Don’t ask in India
The music is endless inexhaustible world without end
The hues are electric phantasmal so limpid they rend
In India they simply do not ask

What is it you don’t get? How could I have lost you?
As if our coming together were a forking path between two labyrinths
There is no end to way down south and yet it has its ends they say
The man who leaves for Ye today will promptly get there yesterday

For reasons that have long escaped me
I fled like a madman who imagined he had lost his head
And so I came
Later still later
I came upon a foreign land of a foreign land
And was enlightened to the fact that I will never be enlightened
Like you and when you do
Do let me take dictation

Here again that fundamentally poetic process of lifting the reader from the concrete into the abstract, and the gathering of new language around a driving emotion like light around a comet. A comparison of the English and the source text again shows Bradbury diverting from what appears “in the Chinese” to create this effect, which is clearly a feature of the source text. The Chinese couplet 音樂無端無涯無止無盡顏色如露如電如幻如影might be given the trot: “The music is unending boundless ongoing neverending / The colors like dew like lightning like visions like shadows.” But this surface meaning only gives us half of what we need, because the Chinese descriptors have traditional, sometimes religious meanings that mix with the phonetic confusion caused by repetition (yin yue wu duan / wu ya/wu zhi wu jin, yan se ru lu / ru dian / ru huan ru ying) and force the reader to accept them both for what they are and as something new.

In order to recreate these transformative linguistic effects, Bradbury uses assonances, parallel structures, and rhymes with English words that may not appear in the original. While we obviously cannot claim (as much as critics demand it) that translations be both faithful and independent, Bradbury’s process – engaging a creative, artistic faculty that inhabits an English-language context to create a poem that represents the narrative and receptive structure of a Chinese poem – successfully makes poems that exist both within and outside of his control, which may be a more sound and equitable way to understand these words on these pages.

These poems are both grown and built. They grow individually out of their own independent narratives; they are built with images that have a recognizable commonality. The images themselves are diverse, and come from radically different sources – contemporary and ancient, Chinese or European. The title of the original Chinese collection, Salsa, is English, Spanish, and probably French –Hsia Yü speaks French, but no English. The titles of several other poems here are also multilingual, including the “dance” poems – “Salsa,” “Swing,” “Tango,” “Soul.” “Dictation,” quoted above, engages in a complex way with ancient Chinese culture: its focus on India and implied references to pilgrimage and root-seeking invoke a Chinese anxiety over the presence of a foreign ancestor, yet in the final stanza, the couplet “There is no end to way down south and yet it has its ends they say / The man who leaves for Ye will promptly get there yesterday” is a direct quote from the Warring States Period philosopher Huizi, friend of the Daoist Zhuangzi, who lived centuries before Buddhism entered China. (The couplet has earned many scholarly interpretations over the centuries, but I like to offer Eliot’s line, “And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.”) The poem “And You’ll Never Want to Travel There Again,” perhaps the collection’s most ambitious piece, begins with a poem by Tang dynasty poet Li He, then dives into questions of life, foreknowledge, and control with the voice of a contemporary narrator, moving from Chinese myth to superstition to T. S. Eliot’s “memory and desire” on the same page.

Even more noticeable is the integration of images in poem 29, “In the Beginning Was the Written Word (Chinese 太初有字),” which is (in both Chinese and English) a gentle satire of the first line of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God / 太初有道,道與神同在.” The poem is prefaced with a quote from the Zhuangzi on man’s cohabitation of the earth with natural spirits, then continues on in eight short stanzas on love and writing. Here are a few representative sections.


I imagine loving you as if nothing had ever transpired
And want so much to reveal to you my vulnerability
The part of you I am in love with includes the part of you I am not
And strangely enough this only seems to have
“Returned me to myself” so much so
I’ve even come to understand the you which has yet to understand
The part of me that understands you


I have even lured you with the emptiness of writing
Those hauntingly ethereal words endlessly unfolding
5000 years layer after layer of reincarnated spirits
Alighting on a pen
Waiting for some new will to possess them


These poems
I discover they’re always changing with the light
Like the eyes of a cat


These cats
They’re always scurrying off
They also draw near
When they really want to

After a twistedly Christian title and a quote from a Daoist classic, what a delightfully pedestrian, human poem! The “I” that inspires and inhabits the narrative personalizes larger, public themes and images, yet by removing them from common contexts (like an English/Spanish/French word used as the title of a Chinese book) forces the reader to interpret them, if not ironically, at least on more independent terms.

Bradbury’s handling of Hsia Yü’s often acrobatic Chinese is masterful. Hsia Yü takes advantage of the paratactic structure of Chinese (words or clauses that, in English, would be subordinated to each other are instead put side-by-side) to create bewildering structures of possessives, “the X of the X of the X,” which can stymie a foreign reader of Chinese. For the most part, Bradbury renders them with perfect fluency. The above lines, “so much so / I’ve even come to understand the you which has yet to understand / The part of me that understands you,” are actually easier to understand in English because of clause subordination than the source Chinese, 甚至也懂得了你还不懂得的我的那一面所懂得的你. Believe me, it’s a tongue-twister. In addition to the creative energy Bradbury has invested in the English, there may even be instances in which his creative interpretation adds weight to the poem as a translation from the source text. The following are excerpts from poem 16, “Passivity,” one of my favorite pieces in this collection:

meanwhile that phoneme barely moves a ripple
‘cross the glaucous moss-
glutted lake
/m/ she says
then /n/ she says
in other words unmoved

someone’s calling out to her
like water dripping on wax
in which she hangs suspended

at the bottom of the lake
sealed in wax gently rocking
but unmoved

her passivity
congealing in her resonating chamber
to form a frozen   /z/

Quiet brevity, immediately sensible in the Chinese, is recreated among polysyllabic English words through the measured arrangement of stresses and short lines. But more happens: Bradbury brings to bear English’s deep phonetic power in lines like “’cross the glaucous moss- / glutted lake,” “sealed in wax gently rocking,” and “to form a frozen /z/,” creating aural effects the source lines do not achieve. Bradbury has allowed the English to be beautiful after its own unique fashion.

Though there are also points at which I seriously question Bradbury’s decisions, and errata, these are the inevitable result of decisions translators are forced to make. And because the translator is a servant of two masters, as Lucas Klein said here, her decisions ensure that someone will find fault somewhere.

We make choices that produce concrete results – which, because translators are servants of two masters, ensures that someone will find fault somewhere.

And, truly, not all of these poems succeed. To return more faithfully to Eileen Tabios’s observation, she says, “There is an is-ness to these poems. It’s an effect facilitated by how many (not all, but many) lines contain individual thoughts. Thus the effect of Read-a-line: boom, Read-a-line: boom, etc. is perfectly pitched, the boom effect on the reader not elongated to the next line.” I concur with this as an observation, but in many of these poems it can be an obstacle to clarity. For example:

Or else, or else, or else. Boundless lyrical death fetish
fast friends and pen pals forever. Crazy
compulsion for collective anonymous writing.
(from “Music and Dance”)


Later if motivation’s turn arrives let me
Grab him by the throat and put a bullet through him
This sobriety of mine
Is almost wind
In a pump organ
(from “Give Time to Time”)

Such stanzas display all the earmarks of the overwrought, navel-gazing artistic tone that many have come to identify with contemporary art. See also poem 08, “Dreaming Beuys,” and excerpts from “The Sans-Feelings Band” featured in Tabios’s review. The few poems in this collection that stall in affectation and take confusion as an end instead of a means die at the hands of pretension. Fortunately, they are a small minority.

The quality of the printed book is also well worth a mention. The cover designs for Zephyr Press’s entire Chinese Poets series, all designed by Cris Mattison, are wonderful to look at. Salsa has no page numbers, only poem numbers, an ingenious trick that makes poems easier to locate, and liberates them from the tyranny of an impersonal, unrelated digit. The type is printed clearly on heavy paper, and the Chinese characters on the verso are available as illustrations as well as text. It’s a beautiful object. But the translator’s name needs to be on the cover. Seriously, don’t make me hashtag you.

I would memorize “Passivity,” “Soul,” “Don’t you feel that morning becomes her?,” and as much of “And You’ll Never Want to Travel There Again,” as could fit into my memory. If I had a classroom I would teach this book, as an example not only of what translation can achieve, but also of how art wins its independence by forcing us to change the way we read.


# 1.   

Thanks for sharing this writing. I am particularly zoomed in with this beginning remark 're-created poetry across a linguistic boundary' , as I just finished reading many marvelous works by linguistic genius Z. Harris and his followers.

'Language bears, on the face of it, the promise of mathematical treatment' - Z. Harris.

If that is true, in the heart of it, the promise of border-crossing with poetic ghosts and BFGs.

susan, September 5, 2016, 7:46p.m.


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